Nova Scotia

Sydney residents closer to day in court

Residents who say the Sydney tar ponds made them or their loved ones sick feel some vindication that a class-action lawsuit is being allowed to go ahead.

Tar ponds lawsuit can go ahead

Residents who say the Sydney tar ponds made them or their loved ones sick feel some vindication that a class-action lawsuit is being allowed to go ahead.

Supreme Court Justice John Murphy certified the suit against the Nova Scotia and federal governments Wednesday, though he imposed restrictions on who can take part.

"Hip hip hooray! This is a wonderful day for the community of Sydney," said Neila MacQueen.

Seven years ago, she led a group of people in the tar ponds neighborhoods who wanted to sue the government owners. Those involved say the former Sydney steel plant contaminated their properties and harmed their health. 

MacQueen ran a store and has lived next to the tar ponds since 1983.

"The children were coming in, and there were so many children sick," she recalled. "I said to one of my employees, I said, 'My God, is there any children healthy around here?'"

Tests later showed the soil around her home was contaminated, and she developed cancer.

"I've had lung cancer; I never smoked a cigarette in my life," she told CBC News. "I lived next to the tar pond and the contamination -- we couldn't even sit in our back yard in the summer."

MacQueen said the suit is for property remediation, compensation for residents' long-term exposure and medical monitoring of those affected.

One of the tar ponds sites is just a few hundred metres from Leonard Axeworthy's home in Whitney Pier. Tests show his land is also contaminated.

"My wife died of cancer; she was only 47. My daughter has [bronchial]. My son, well he had high levels of lead and arsenic in his body -- same with the daughter."

Kenny Green, who is also named in the class action document, said the suit is to prove a point.

"They messed up. Face up. Do your job, and that's it." 

The case may take years to wind its way through the courts, but MacQueen said it's worth it.

"I want people to know that I know the difference because we were not treated right."

She also said it's worth it for people who started the fight but have already died.

Suit limited in scope

The suit was limited to three kilometres around the former plant and tar ponds, including parts of Whitney Pier, Ashby and north-end Sydney. A proposal to cover a section of the city's south end, such as the shipyard,  was excluded.

Lawyer Ray Wagner said there could be 15,000 to 20,000 people seeking financial compensation.

"That doesn't necessarily mean they're going to be successful," he said. "People will have to go and be able to substantiate their claim."

The tar ponds were the result of a century of steelmaking. Pollutants were released from a coke oven, the chamber where coal was heated, and about 700,000 tonnes of chemical waste and raw sewage accumulated in settling ponds over the decades.

The defendants — the federal and provincial governments — argue there is no evidence to link the steel plant with contamination of nearby properties or ill health effects.

The tar ponds site is being remediated. The $400-million project is expected to be complete in 2014.

Lawyers first proposed that anyone with three years of exposure within a 5.6-kilometre radius of Victoria Road and Laurier Street be included in the suit.

Last year, Murphy said he would allow the suit to proceed if the group of complainants was narrowed.

Murphy will file a written decision and then issue an order for the class-action suit. Parties have 10 days after that to appeal.

With files from The Canadian Press

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